Contrary to what Councilman John Beresford referred to as the county “hovering” over the city to make a decision, County Commissioner Harry Johnston said the county is not pressuring the city to do anything it does not want to do.
He added he understands the city’s concerns about a possible drop in its Insurance Service Office rating from 4 to 5 if it consolidated with the county.
However, he said, the county is “poised” to have an improvement in its rating, and the city is in “serious danger of a rating downgrade.”
“If anything, I think the county is in truth no less than an equal service at this point,” he added, noting the county’s improved rating could come this year or next year.
Johnston, who lives in Canton, said he understands the “city pride” aspect of wanting to retain control of fire services, but said there are benefits to consolidation, including “some very obvious elimination and overlapping of services.”
Johnston said the county needs to replace its North Canton fire station and its fire station along Highway 140/Hickory Flat Highway, both of which are in the vicinity of where the city would like to build new stations.
A Service Delivery Strategy, adopted in 2009 by the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners and municipalities, includes an agreement that would allow the county to work with the city to jointly build a fire station.
That agreement stipulates both entities would build a new station near Laurel Canyon, replacing the county’s North Canton station on Highway 140/Reinhardt College Parkway, and another near Commerce Boulevard, replacing Cherokee’s Hickory Flat station on Highway 140/Hickory Flat Highway east of Interstate 575.
The city originally approached the county last year with the talks of consolidation and held informal meetings to review what could be done to make consolidation a viable option.
The idea has since garnered pushback from the majority of the Canton City Council.
Councilman Bob Rush has proposed the city create its own fire district tax and impose the same 3.129 millage rate the county charges onto city residents.
With the exception of Councilman Glen Cummins, the entire City Council voted against beginning formal talks with the county to hash out a consolidation agreement.
Along with Cummins, Mayor Gene Hobgood has expressed support of consolidation.
Beresford, along with other council members, have contended the city will see a reduced level of service if it joins with Cherokee County.
Beresford has also questioned why County Manager Jerry Cooper rejected Woodstock consolidating with the county while he served as Woodstock’s city manager, but has been open to the idea of consolidating with the city of Canton.
Cooper said then-County Manager Lamar Hamill penned a memo to him, proposing the county would pay for emergency sirens if the city consolidated fire services.
“The cost of the emergency sirens was approximately $19,000 — if I recall — and my response to Lamar was that when and if the county enhanced their services, then we (city) could talk,” he said. “At the time, the city was planning for and making significant investments in fire services, including purchasing equipment and apparatus, adding personnel, and building the new downtown Station 14.”
Beresford during the council’s meeting on Thursday, said the city already had a mutual aid agreement with the county, which he said was an “excellent document” that’s sufficient enough to serve the city.
However, Cooper said the aid Beresford is referring to is the Homeland Security Agreement of Mutual Aid, which was adopted in 2007.
That agreement, according to the county’s Office of Homeland Security-Emergency Management Director Robby Westbrook, was to make sure local governments were in compliance with the National Incident Management System, which outlined how local agencies would assist and respond to terrorists’ attacks, natural disasters and other emergencies.
Cooper said the agreement “does not apply to the routine fire incidents (and) responses.”
The county only has an automatic aid agreement with the city of Woodstock, which Cooper said “works well.”
No such aid exists with Canton.
The county manager noted the fire services agreement that exists with the city was adopted in the 1980s between the city and the county’s volunteer fire stations, some of which Cooper said are no longer in operation.
He added another agreement was adopted in September 1999 by the city that agreed “to continue negotiating rather than (adopting) the automatic aid agreement proposed and adopted by the county” in 1999.
Beresford said the assessment of the agreement is just “playing games” and was “getting blown out of perspective.”
He noted fire departments “don’t function like politicians” and its firefighters have an oath to help its citizens, regardless to where geographical boundaries lie.
“I think it’s beyond ridiculous the way this is going,” he said. “We want to run our own business here in Canton,”
Beresford said whatever Canton decides to do will cost money, and make all property owners — including the senior citizens — pay additional taxes, but he noted it’s in the best interest of the residents if the city retained its fire department and remain “responsible for our citizens.”
County Commission Chairman Buzz Ahrens added the city of Canton will soon have a “huge demand” on its hands when Canton Marketplace builds out and when Northside Hospital-Cherokee develops its replacement facility along Commerce Boulevard.
Ahrens also said the county has put forth solutions to the city’s questions of building two fire stations, providing adequate staffing, housing ambulances in the city and providing paramedics and EMTs.
Cooper said the city’s ultimate decision will not have any impact on how the county decides to locate fire stations in the near future.
He noted the county “routinely locates stations where we can best serve residents and businesses primarily within the unincorporated fire district.”
“We are aware that there are areas within the corporate limits of the city of Canton, including but not limited to, Laurel Canyon, Great Sky, The Bluffs, and S.R. 20 that are likely underserved by the city,” he said, adding the county’s motives are simple: “eliminate duplication of services, save taxpayer money, and enhance services.”
Ahrens added it was “imperative” for both entities to examine their service boundaries to determine how they can best serve their residents, respectively.
“I think there’s a lot more expense on city’s part than what they anticipate,” he said. “They only have one way to do it — raising taxes.”